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Polk County Universities Thrive in Healthy Economy

September 16, 2019 News, Talent Pipeline

As the local economy continues to grow, more and more students are attending college after graduating from high school, and many are staying local.

As colleges throughout Polk are experiencing increased enrollment, the local talent pipeline gains access to new degree programs and universities are opening their doors to more dual-enrolled students and developing online courses and degrees.

Here’s more information on the state of Polk County’s seven universities and colleges.


Almost 3,000 students are attending Southeastern University on its Lakeland campus this fall, joining nearly 6,500 students who take classes at one of the other 150 campuses across 40 states according to Priscilla Burr, director of communications. That’s about 750 students more than last year.

“It’s always our goal to be at the forefront of innovative higher education,” said SEU President Dr. Kent Ingle. “While most colleges have seen a decline in enrollment, we have seen growth due to our commitment to providing affordable and accessible education.”

Burr said there are three things generating growth:

  • The addition of more extension sites, including 37 this fall, pushing enrollment at those locations to nearly 2,800 students.
  • An increase in students enrolled online, now totaling about 1,900.
  • More dual-enrollment students, nearly 2,300.

SEU also added several new degree programs, including bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry, biochemistry with a research concentration and kinesiology with a pre-athletic training track.


Enrollment at Florida Southern College increased to more than 3,500 and their retention rate is 82.5%., according to Rebecca Paul, FSC’s director of communications and marketing.

Almost 500 undergraduate students are enrolled in the business administration program at FSC’s Barney Barnett School of Business and Free Enterprise.

“Florida Southern is the only college in our area that holds the prestigious AACSB accreditation, which recognizes the top 15% of business programs nationwide,” Paul said.  Only 800 business schools worldwide are accredited by the nonprofit Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

In addition to business administration, students can also major in Accounting, Sports Business Management and Free Enterprise.

“The faculty and staff of Florida Southern are gratified that more and more of the brightest students in the nation are making FSC their destination college,” said John Grundig, vice president of enrollment management. “We strongly believe our reputation as a college that strives for excellence is the reason for our upward trajectory in academics and enrollment.”


Located in Babson Park in Southeast Polk County, Webber International University is also seeing growth. Although its figures are not yet final, the university has 669 undergraduates and 70 graduate students — 739 total — enrolled for this fall, compared to a total of 694 in fall 2018, according to Devyn Montalvo, director of Career Services & Community Outreach. Its retention rate of first-time freshmen is 55% over the past year.

The most popular programs at the university are sports business management, criminal justice management, general business studies and management.

This fall, the school added four new degree programs: Bachelor of Science in Sports Performance, Health & Fitness, and three Bachelor of Art degrees in health services administration, middle grades education and special education.


Enrollment and retention rates — especially for full-time freshmen — are both up at Polk State College, according to Madison Fantozzi, director of communications.

“This is particularly exciting as we continue to enhance services for all students to ensure they persist on their paths to degrees, certifications and employment,” Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti said.

“We continue to be innovative and forward-thinking through programs such as the First Year Experience, implementing strategies proven to increase student retention and completion.”

Enrollment is up slightly — 0.2% — but could increase further as enrollment for eight- and 12-week sessions continue, Fantozzi said. The one-year full-time freshman retention has increased from 58% to 70% since 2014, when the First Year Experience, a program that helps students navigate the college waters during their first year, started.

More than 16,000 students seek degrees at Polk State every year.


Located in Lake Wales, Warner expects about the same enrollment as last year, 675 on-campus students, according to Andrea Thies, vice president for advancement. The fall 2019 number won’t be official until October. But, she said, student housing is full, and the university is exploring options to offer additional housing in the future.

Thies said these four programs are most popular:

  •  Agricultural Studies, a two- and four-year degree program that offers students direct access to leaders in the field and in high-tech agricultural endeavors to prepare them to enter jobs in ag-rich counties like Polk. Students graduate with more than 500 hours of hands-on working experience.
  • Criminal Justice, a program that prepares students to protect and serve in local, county, state and federal law enforcement roles.
  • Exercise and Sport Studies. In this field, “Students learn how and why the human body responds to physical activity. The field is comprised of various sub-disciplines, including exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, motor learning, nutrition, and the psychology of physical activity,” Thies said.
  • An online MBA program designed for working adults.

At Warner, students gain knowledge from professors who have worked in their fields, giving them an education based in disciplinary practice, not just theory, said Dr. Gentry Sutton, vice president for Academic Affairs.

“A significant number of Warner University faculty members have actual practitioner experience in their disciplines,” Sutton said. “Many of them did not come straight from their graduate programs into academia.”

Consequently, Warner’s faculty brings valuable real-life experiences to the classroom, enlivening instruction and helping students to see the practical applications of the academic world.”


Florida Polytechnic University is the state’s 12th university and the only one devoted specifically to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Although enrollment is down about 70 students from a year ago, about 1,350, the number is expected to fluctuate slightly before being finalized, according to Lydia Guzman. the university’s director of communications.

Most of the students — 1,250 — are from Florida, while about 50 hail from other states in the U.S and 50 students represent countries from Brazil, Ecuador and Iran to the Russian Federation, Bangladesh and Ghana.

The university’s retention rate is 70%. Because the majority of its students are male, Florida Poly has been working to attract more females, especially to engineering degrees. Its female population increased 2 percentage points to 15% this year.

This fall, Florida Poly debuted three new engineering programs in anticipation of a shortage in that area in coming years as more and more Baby Boomers retire.


With a 17-year presence in Lakeland, Keiser University’s student population fluctuates because it offers a variety of four-week classes. Its estimated enrollment for this fall is 1,500 students, said Carly Evans, director of student services.

A private, nonprofit university, Keiser has 18 campuses in Florida, one in Nicaragua and one in China. Its retention rate is reported for the entire university system, standing at 79% for first-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees who returned a year later, in fall 2018, to continue their studies, Evans said.

Allied Health programs are among the most popular programs at the Lakeland campus, which also offers business, IT, criminal justice and graphic design.

“We are also adding a bachelor of science in nursing fast-track program, as well as an Associate of Science degree in diagnostic medical sonography,” Evans said.

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